It was late, half past eleven, when I finally met Vincenc in Vienna. So my first hours in that thriving city of European crossroads were spent getting acquainted with Vincenc while he and I scurried about in the windy chill of the night, catching the various trams and busses we needed in order to find our way to the warmth of Vincenc’s small dorm room. Vincenc is a student from Kosovo who has been living, working and studying in Vienna for the past six years.
It was a tight squeeze in Vincenc’s room. The extra mattress took up what little floor space there was. But, it was comfortable and cozy and a warm refuge from the windy, Viennese chill.
I accompanied Vincenc to a local coffee house near his work the next morning. From there, he explained how I could use local transportation to get to Schonbrunn, Vienna’s summer palace. Unfortunately, I was visiting just as winter had only begun to fade away, thus I was missing out on the palace’s true glory: intricate mazes from trimmed hedges and large, stately expanses of flowers in delicate design that backed up to a rolling hill of kelly greens. Yet, despite the bare-branched trees and bushes, the freshly turned beds of earth that were still void of any buds or flowers, the magnificence of the palace was unmistakable – its poise and elegance evident no matter the season. I spent a good two and a half hours wandering around the palace grounds, before rushing off to meet Vincenc back at the coffee house.
When I hurried into Coffee Day, a bit late, I found Vincenc surrounded by friends. We spent an hour there in the coffee shop chatting and trading stories before Vincenc, another couchsurfer – Roger, Vincenc’s friend – Arber and I headed out to explore some of the city center. Vincenc possesses a wealth of knowledge about Vienna. It’s incredible how much he knows about Vienna’s history, culture, and politics. Unfortunately, Vincenc’s excitement in sharing the richness of the city means he jumps from one landmark to the next, barely leaving time to digest its significance, let alone time snap some halfway-decent pictures, before rushing off to the next attraction. I must say, we got a lot in, in just one evening. I also have to add how impressed I was with Vienna’s university. I haven’t seen too many of the Ivy-league colleges in the U.S. first-hand, but I would venture to say that the grandeur of the University of Vienna (the oldest University in the German-speaking world) easily surpasses that of any American university.
Where we ate dinner that first night is a perfect example of why couchsurfing is really the best way to indulge in the hidden treasures of a given city. Vincenc took us to a small family-owned restaurant that served a small buffet of Pakistani cuisine. The restaurant’s motto: “Eat as you wish. Pay as you wish.” For two and a half plates overflowing with food I paid just 6 euros… and I had even dished out a little more than everyone else since it was my first time. You couldn’t beat that! I would have never found the cozy little restaurant on my own or in some tourist package. After dinner, we met back up with Vincenc’s other friends for some drinks at a local bar. The bar was rather smoky though and I was still fighting jet lag, so I was pretty low-key. I enjoyed the great company, but I was grateful when I finally got to plop down on the mattress in Vincenc’s room and fall into a deep sleep.
On day two, I met up with Roger while Vincenc went to work. Roger and I had planned to go sightseeing, but lunch took a bit longer than expected and we enjoyed a relaxed afternoon of cooking, talking and reading before meeting up with Vincenc at Coffee Day again. This time it was just Vincenc and I for round two of the blitz like tour of the city center. That evening, I enjoyed a home-cooked Italian dinner with tortellini and sangria. Giorgio, another couchsurfer, hosted me, Vincenc, Roger, Arber and two of his friends in honor of my visit to Vienna. I must say, I’m getting spoiled by all these dinner parties! I expect nothing less for my return to the U.S.! Kidding… I’m kidding.
Friday, my third day was full of beautiful landscapes and introspective contemplation. I set out for a prominent hill just outside the city as Vincenc set out for work. The hill offers an incredible view of Vienna’s sprawling European metropolis. Distinctly European. There were just a handful of skyscrapers, none of which were too grand. That’s because, until relatively recently, a law in Vienna regulated buildings to a height no greater than the city’s Dom (main church). That’s why European city landscapes are such a cozy picturesque with a sea of red, brown and black tiled roofs dotted with islands of church steeples and ornamental government buildings. After taking in the Viennese landscape, I planted myself on a nearby bench and cracked open one of the books I was currently reading, The Zahir. As I mentioned before, the last few books I’ve been reading have left me considering what I don’t know and reconsidering what I thought I knew… among other things. Their words have been urging me to look more closely at myself, who I am, what stories and personal histories define me, which stories and personal histories I should perhaps let go of… I still have to share the passages that have stuck with me. I’ll get to them in a post or two.
In the meantime, my contemplative mood stuck with me as I headed back down the hill and worked my way through the public transportation system to the Danube River. In most city squares, you feed the pigeons. At most lakes, ponds and rivers, you feed the ducks. Along the Danube in Vienna, you feed the swans. I’ve never seen so many swans at once before… at least twenty, perhaps even thirty. Even when huddling while being fed, these stately birds are poised and elegant, just like Vienna it seems. And that’s what they’re doing… huddling. Not clustering. Not in a frenzy. Just gliding into a cozy huddle near the breadcrumbs floating on the water’s surface. Every so often, one swan would expand its broad wings, as if stretching to keep things from getting too cramped. But never was there a feeding frenzy. Further along the Danube, the swans dispersed. Now, there were open runways and I glimpsed a couple swans racing across the miniature river waves, that were dancing in twirling pirouettes.
That evening I got to take pleasure in one the city’s defining characteristics: the music of Austria’s classical prodigies Mozart and Strauss. Vincenc works for an online ticketing agency, so it was just a matter of making a phone call to secure us tickets for the live classical concert that’s popular with tourists. Like I said, I was delighted! It was my last night and I really felt as if I was leaving the city on the right “note”. (Yes, the corny pun intended.) The evening of classical dramas and melodies lightened my contemplative mood from earlier and I hummed in amused delight as I remembered Wednesdays spent in old Catholic school hallways listening to my parents practice with the church choir, Sundays spent with those same voices belting out hymns from the church’s choir loft, and later, Thursdays practicing with my own singing group that preformed classically-themed Disney productions. I recalled the poignant experience of singing with a trained, professional choir. I participated in but a small piece of the production of Carmina Burana. But, as my voice sang in harmony with all those other powerful, resonating voices, I felt as if I was inside the music. Yes, the hills of Austria are alive with music and their notes ring true and clear throughout the Danube river valley in Vienna.
On Saturday, I left the classical poise of Vienna. But, thanks to Arber I was able to bring some of Mozart and Strauss with me on my laptop! That night though, I would be bouncing and writhing to very different beats. I had plans to attend the Multi Kulti Ball in Graz with Claudia!
I LOVE traveling by train! It really is such a shame the US has not properly developed its passenger railway system. I was listening to Mozart Symphony No. 40 In G Minor when I was chugging past little Austrian villages tucked between the corners and bends of the foothills of the Austrian Alps. It was ride of bliss… looking out the window of the train and comfortably encountering the Austrian countryside while listening to the world-renowned Austrian composer on my way from Vienna back to Graz. Truly, one of life’s little treasures…
On yet, another train ride through more Alps, foothills and valleys (this time Graz to Salzburg), I looked up from writing and see a lone mountain coated in a creamy frosting of early spring snow. It’s actually a warm spring day, but just several hundred feet up from the green valleys and purple evergreens are jagged, slate-gray, rocky peaks sprinkled in the snowy frost. They’re alluding to a chill that hasn’t quite lifted despite the day’s sunny warmth.